Your Dog Won’t Be the Only One Drinking From the Toilet in the Future

The next big source of drinking water may be your toilet.

As a record-breaking drought drags on in California and elsewhere, regulators and residents are overcoming squeamishness about recycling wastewater—yes, sewage—to boost scarce water supplies. These so-called toilet-to-tap projects have been taking hold in the American West, Australia, and Europe, and the state of California is now considering vastly expanding such efforts.

When wastewater is recycled, it first goes to a sewage treatment plant—just like all wastewater. Then it gets sent to another facility connected to the treatment plant that’s been equipped with technologies to purify the water to a much higher quality. Water has been recycled for agricultural and industrial purposes for decades, and in those cases it isn’t treated to drinking water standards—it’s just treated to eliminate pathogens and other public health concerns.

But the newer facilities are aiming higher: They are looking to more thorough and more advanced treatment processes, such as reverse osmosis and potentially zero-liquid discharge, to get the water to near-distilled quality. These projects are costly. The most advanced technologies are very expensive, and there are a lot of materials involved—miles and miles of pipes, for example—and especially in urban settings, there’s also the cost and disruption of tearing up roads to lay down those pipes. But, said Randy Barnard, chief of the recycled water unit for California’s State Water Resources Control Board, as the costs of new sources of water continue to climb, the costs of laying the infrastructure for water recycling look more affordable.

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